Racism, Children’s Classics and the World Today

18 Aug

newshour.jpgThis post has been in my heart and mind for a few days now and after seeing Grace Lin speak about this very issue on PBS NewsHour and in light of recent events, I think it’s an important subject that kids, parents, teachers, librarians and everyone in between should be thinking about and discussing.

Grace Lin’s talk was titled, “What to do When You Realize Classic Books From Your Childhood Are Racist.” Recently, I’ve seen a number of posts about The Little House on the Prairie books being labeled as racist (and they are). So this wasn’t a new idea to me, but one I hadn’t really thought about much before and that’s where my white privilege comes in. I loved reading The Little House books when I was younger, in fact, historical fiction was one of my favorite genres – Caddie Woodlawn (also racist), Anne of Green Gables (relatively forward thinking) and the American Girl books were my bread and butter. As a child, I don’t think the fact that Ma hated Indians was something I saw as racist, I knew the history of the migration of European settlers onto Indian land and understood that Ma’s hatred grew out of her fear for her family as wrong as it was. The same way I knew that you didn’t use the words that Mark Twain used to describe black people in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or how I have a fond memory of a teacher reading aloud The Indian In the Cupboard, but now as an adult see how truly incorrect the depiction of Native Americans truly was in this story. It’s not that I read them and accepted them as truth, I knew that because they spoke of the past, there were things that didn’t bear repeating in the world today.

You have to realize that many of these classics were written during a time (50+ years ago) that this vocabulary, depiction, illustration, language was, if not widely used, accepted by many. That doesn’t make these stories any less racist, but it does in fact leave an opening for an adult in a child’s life to open up conversation about history (and presents times as we’ve been seeing lately). It’s a chance to teach kids why we don’t use certain words, why a certain depiction is incorrect or why an illustration is offensive, hurtful and just plain wrong.

Does it mean we clean up these stories, removing language, illustrations and whitewashing our history? No. Does it mean we ban these books from children, never letting them read what we grew up reading? No. In fact, I think it’s a great way to teach children current events, history and so much more. I have a teacher-friend who recently shared this story on Facebook – a few years ago he had the most difficult class of children he has ever taught, a fifth grade class that wasn’t afraid to throw racial slurs around the cafeteria and playground like it meant nothing. So he paired the kids up and had them interview each other with a list of predetermined questions and a Venn diagram to illustrate their differences and similarities. Of course it didn’t take long for the kids to realize they had more in common with each other than they thought and were surprised by this revelation.

Kids aren’t born hating people that are different from them. They are taught hatred and  books are a great door in which to show kids the effects of racism, sexism, and just about every other -ism out there, but it’s also about showing them what it means to have respect, empathy, kindness, compassion and hope – all things we need a little more of in this world.

Each summer we offer a book discussion for middle grade students and on more than one occasion, I’ve offered a title with a character who is portrayed as having a disability. Kids are open in a book discussion to asking questions to better understand a character’s life and they feel comfortable in the book club space to be able to ask these questions. I know that asking questions can be microagressive to people who are different from yourself and I think there’s a way to ask questions respectfully and insightfully (which is a whole other post), but I think what this world could use is more instances of kids being comfortable asking the questions they have to understand the world around them, after all they’ll be here longer than we will and I’d love to see acceptance become the norm instead of the exception. So don’t be afraid to talk to kids about what they’re reading, kids want to be able to ask questions and to understand, but if no one is there to ask the questions to, how will they find their answers?

Okay, so this post has been meandering for much longer than I anticipated, but if you’re still with me…. check out Grace Lin’s absolutely astounding Tedx Talk or her books, including Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and so many others, she’s pretty awesome.

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